In my teens, I was quite the voracious reader of fiction. Several books impressed me – e.g. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles – but above all, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged had a tremendous influence. Not so much for its literary “merit” (even then I realized that Shakespeare she’s not) but for the ideas Rand espoused so forcefully. I recently returned to the book. My reaction: what was I thinking back then???
Precisely the point. When we’re young, we think that we’re thinking. In a way, of course, we are “thinking” – but without much reflection. Strong ideas, simple to grasp, tend to grab our attention; complexity is perceived as wishy-washy. Just like our teenage chemical hormones that are “raging” in one clear direction, so too our cognitive faculties hone-in laser-like on any idea that represents protest against the status quo. It’s an age where we can’t be too bothered by facts that get in the way.
As we grow older, most of us manage to “mature”. In a large sense, that’s another way of saying that our life experience wears down the sharp edges of assuredness, bringing a more complex and rounded understanding of social reality. That doesn’t mean that we stop strongly believing in ideas, ideologies, movements; it does mean that there’s also a “yes, but…” lying in the thicket of whatever opinion or belief we happen to hold.
I came across Ayn Rand’s tome (over 1,000 pages long!!) in the early 1960s. It was a stunning (for me) paean to capitalism and freedom. As a teenager, I hadn’t thought much about “economics”, but “freedom” was certainly on my mind – as it would be for any adolescent beginning to forge their own identity. The idea that we are the masters of our own fate, and that society shouldn’t restrict us in any significant way, had great meaning for anyone at my early stage in life.
What has happened since then? I began to look at the world in all its intricacy. Simultaneously, I started reading social-science research (after all, that is my general field): the way humans think and behave (psychology), the way societies work (sociology, politics, economics), and from there to the way (and why) they are constructed (biology, neuroscience). The more I read and delved, the clearer the picture became – not simpler, but rather far more nuanced and complex.
Put simply (and somewhat simplistically): there is no such thing as the “individual” divorced from society. Everything we believe in, all that we create and do, to a very large extent is a product of our social and physical environment. Indeed, Hebrew (Judaism) has two words for what in English we call “creation”: “briyah” and “yetzirah” – the difference between creatio ex nihilo (something from nothing) that only God can perform, and creatio ex materia (something from something) that describes what humans are (only) capable of. In other words, when we think of something “new”, it is basically a recombination of something (physical or ideational) that already exists on our world.
Most people are not voracious readers like I am, but everyone lives life in all its variety, up close and vicariously too (“the news”). The “up close” teaches us how to relate better to others: what drives others and ourselves, where they’re “coming from”, when to say (or not say) what in response. The news – external to our immediate life – provides perspective on “others”: different cultures and ways of living, different “narratives” and ways of thinking. Assuming that our eyes and ears are somewhat open to all this, we cannot help but become more “mature”, i.e., tolerant and able to accept life’s others and “otherness” with humility and grace.
Maturity has another side effect: happiness! Recent research clearly shows that around the world, as an age cohort older people (60s and up) are happier than any other age group. That’s true for three main reasons: first, the kids are out of the house; second, professionally we have achieved (or not) most of what we will ever accomplish. Third, and perhaps most important of all, we don’t take things so much to heart anymore; we’ve “seen it all” and for the “mature” person the good and the bad are all accepted with a gracious chuckle. Thus, as people approach the last stage of life, they paradoxically also tend to accept life far more from a “middle” standpoint.
Finally, there’s one more important aspect of the mature mind: accepting that whatever the current conventional wisdom and even the hard, factual evidence, we have to maintain a level of skepticism because of the lack of absolute surety. Even Newton’s “absolute” laws of physics eventually succumbed to new facts and a new way of understanding the universe (Einstein). Metaphorically, Sir Isaac was our teenage certainty; Albert constitutes later-age relativity. Great minds might not think alike, but mature minds do take the same approach to thinking about life.